Aye Write Weekend 2

Friday, March 17, Mitchell Library, Glasgow

James Hanratty

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Saturday, March 18, Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow

Frank Gardner; Jenni Murray; Val McDermid

Immigration judge James Hanratty might have underestimated how informed his Glasgow audience was on Friday night. He gave a very articulate speech about his job spelling out basics that his listeners were perhaps beyond. He explained the difference in status between refuges and asylum seekers, the need for immigration control at all, the lack of law enforcement required to enact decisions, and how he saw his own role. Then one man queried his suggestion that those in troubled parts of Africa be encouraged to go to neighbouring countries, not come to Europe. Strong tribal borderlines made that often impossible, the questioner said. Hanratty had to admit he was right.

It was generous of him to do so, even if it was a little uncomfortable hearing one highly informed question after another suggest he’d pitched things a little low. No such problem for BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner who was happy to divulge that at each of the three UK security services, MI5, MI6 and GCHQ  there are probably only a couple of people who engage with the press, and that their favourite phrase for handling leading questions is ‘I wouldn’t steer you away from that.’ That, he told us, was as far as they ever usually went. For any of them to issue the kind of denial that GCHQ did with regard to Donald Trump’s accusation they helped Obama wire-tap him, was unprecedented. His greatest worry was what Trump would do in the event of a missile launch against the US. And this was from a man who’d arrived in Glasgow at midnight on St Patrick’s Day. ‘The whole city was having a party! A woman and her daughter offered me chips!’ It doesn’t get much scarier, Frank.

If Jenni Murray had recently caused a storm claiming transgender women weren’t ‘real women’, you wouldn’t have known it from this genteel session about her new book, The History of Britain in 21 Women’. I quite like the idea of Jenni being controversial but there was little to get upset about here – who could argue with a book that takes us from Boudicea to Nicola Sturgeon by way of Mary Seacole, Mary Quant and, erm, Margaret Thatcher? Lots to get upset and argumentative about then, but there was barely a murmur. A light ripple when  she mentioned Elizabeth I beheading Mary Queen of Scots (‘well, she had been causing a lot of trouble’). Again the Glasgow audience was the star, when the first questioner asked who was the first person Jenni met who’d called herself a feminist. A superb question (her French teacher, sticking up for Madame Bovary, was the answer).

I like to think what Val McDermid would have done with the Madame Bovary story; something altogether feistier, I suspect. Astonishingly, this year sees the publication of her 31st novel. Whe she started put, most of the crime writers she knew were much older, approaching retirement. There was a sense that the literary novel was too academic, too theoretical, and no longer about telling stories. Genre, she said, was where you went for that, and her own literary influences are a telling mixture of stylistic masters like Robert Louis Stevenson and mistresses of plot like Agatha Christie. McDermid is probably associated most with the forensic branch of crime writing for her famous TV adaptations like Wire in the Blood, but she’s also a psychologically astute portrayer of character, which sometimes gets forgotten. Often having three books on the go at the same time (promoting one, writing another and thinking about a third) can’t be easy, but you suspect she likes to keep herself on the edge as much as she does her readers.